TONY SMITH.- Virtual parliament or elective dictatorship?

Apr 1, 2020

As the Morrison Government responds incrementally to the Corona Virus epidemic – apparently following expert medical advice – there has been much comment about decisions to close businesses such as hairdressing salons. Sadly, the decision to shut down parliament received comparatively little discussion.

Parliament is a workplace and like every other workplace is a site of potential communal infection. No-one wants their local MP exposed to danger and no-one welcomes the thought of MPs returning from Canberra to infect local communities. The health of parliamentary staff is also an important consideration. The imperative to physically close parliament is strong. It is a shame that the Coalition sees fit to govern without a parliament but wants teachers to keep schools open. Teachers have been given the heroic role on the front line of the ‘fight’ against the virus, alongside health care workers. It will be apparent to many teachers that they are being placed in danger because the government has no plans or ability to provide alternative child care for ‘essential’ workers such as nurses who ought not to stay home.

It does suit the executive government very well to present the response to the pandemic as a ‘fight’ or a war. People understand the notion of a war cabinet and might be prepared to accept a form of temporary, limited suspension of democratic norms. Parliament has always been the Opposition’s arena in Westminster systems. As governments need parliament to endorse legislation, they are forced to accept amendments to bills and are subject to other forms of scrutiny such as that provided by committees.

What a pity that the Morrison Government has squandered any honeymoon capital it might have had by showing itself barely honest and hardly competent over recent months. The level of trust in government is very low. This is not the first time that this government has used procedural arrangements to limit parliamentary scrutiny. Goodwill has been exhausted.

Assuming that the government expects to modify further its instructions about the social lockdown, it must operate now without legislative approval. It will issue instructions as ministerial directives and govern by regulation. Regulations and ordinances usually come under detailed scrutiny by parliamentary committees. In their absence, there is no effective watchdog on ministers exceeding their authority.

A couple of changes would ameliorate the alarm we should be feeling over the suspension of parliament. In a genuine war cabinet, the Opposition would be included. Emergency measures demand bipartisan support. The other possibility is that parliament meet in the way that we all now meet – electronically. The government recommends that people generally work from home. MPs should be able to do this as well. Surely, the lack of media protest about the closing of parliament is not a sign that MPs are considered to lack effectiveness.

Perhaps the Morrison Government has not thought about the consequences of its actions. The fiasco caused when thousands of people queued at Centrelink and the meltdown of the government website would have been anticipated and avoided by any half-competent government. Just as in the bushfire crisis, state premiers are showing that efficiency and good communication are possible and are re-assuring. Premier Andrews for example has supplemented instructions to people returning from overseas by enlisting empty motels as quarantine accommodation.

It is sometimes argued that Australians do not need rights listed in our constitution because we have a government responsible to parliament, media that is free to criticise. independent courts and limits on parliamentary terms. The fourth estate has been attacked by this government, journalists harassed and responses to requests under ‘freedom of information’ laws make a mockery of the term. Masked thugs have raided the homes of non-citizens. We are becoming a quasi-military society in the name of border protection. Weasel words are commonly used to create the impression that the government cares about the people while its actions suggest otherwise. When asked about ethical standards during the ‘sports rorts’ affair, the prime minister insisted ‘We have done nothing illegal’.

The most frightening possibility is that having tasted the fruits of authoritarianism, the Coalition might suggest that the health priorities and the need for a command economy demand an extension of power into some unspecified future. Already candidates in some local government areas across New South Wales have called for postponement of the September elections. We should perhaps be thankful that a federal election is not due soon.

The ultimate constraints on the government in Australia are the constitution and the need for popular approval. At times paternalistic Coalition governments have shown little respect for the conventions that fill the gaps in the written Constitution. They always think they know best and often think in terms of benign dictatorship. This current government continually spreads conflict and yet what Australia needs now is consensus based on broad consultation. Shutting parliament narrows the discussion and makes consensus less likely. We will be less alert and more alarmed.


Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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